When it comes to the Nazis and World War II, there always seems to be another story that filmmakers are looking to tell. Sometimes, it’s about the violence perpetrated. Other times, it’s about those who stood up against the regime. One Life, playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, is very much of that ilk. Old fashioned yet brimming with emotion, it’s the kind of movie that rarely gets made anymore, frankly.
One Life manages to sneak up on you without ever feeling manipulative. When you’re meant to cry, you sure cry, but it feels earned. It does so because everything here is mounted through the lens of our protagonist, a humble man who just wanted to do good for children on the eve of WWII. The film carries that through to the finish line, making for the kind of work you can’t help but admire.
This is the story of British humanitarian Nicholas Winton (Anthony Hopkins, with Johnny Flynn in flashbacks), an ordinary man who did something extraordinary. On the brink of World War II, Winton went to Central Europe, where he saw untold numbers of children living in squalor as the Nazis moved in. What he saw, he couldn’t unsee, and felt that he needed to hel. who helped save hundreds of Central European children from the Nazis on the eve of World War II.
Deputizing his feisty mother Babette Winton (Helena Bonham Carter) back home, she begins raising funds while Nicholas works with a humanitarian group to save the children. They plan to send them to foster families via train, though the bureaucracy in England, as well as the closing in of Nazis complicates things. In the present day, he’s still haunted by those he couldn’t save, even though hundreds of children were evacuated to safety thanks to him. If you don’t know the end of this story, I won’t spoil it, but bring your tissues.
Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn play Nicholas Winton with heart and purity, while Helena Bonham Carter gets her fair share of solid one-liners. She’s the bit of levity that the film certainly needs, even if her character is mildly extraneous, in the grand scheme of things. Watching Flynn and especially Hopkins is where you really appreciate the acting on display. The former gets to have a real coming out party, while the latter effortlessly reminds you why he’s one of the best to ever practice the craft. Supporting players include Romola Garai, Lena Olin, Jonathan Pryce, Alex Sharp, and more.
Director James Hawes, along with writers Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, always have us in Nicholas’ shoes. Even when he’s not on the screen, his perspective shines through. Coxon and Drake have a no frills approach that Hawes carries through, though the filmmaker does pace things very well. The film isn’t short, but everything feels essential to building up to the big moment. When it happens, the underplay it in a way that actually makes it even more moving.
One Life doesn’t do anything to reinvent the wheel. In fact, it almost intentionally presents you with just a well-crafted wheel. The thing is, the film works, is handsomely mounted, and leaves you an emotional wreck. So, while it’s one of the least flashy flicks to play TIFF, it’s ultimately one of the most effective.